The Sum of Nothing
Port race ponders a wasted waterfront
What: Port of Bellingham, Bellingham City Council Candidates Forum
When: 9 am Sat., Oct. 21
Where: Bellingham City Council Chambers
Wednesday, October 11, 2017
It is axiomatic, there’s very little agreement in politics. Yet the current Port of Bellingham Commission and the candidates who seek the position in the November election alike all agree: They’re not happy with the pace of development of Bellingham’s central waterfront. Their answers to that question range from No to Hell No.
Initiated at the turn of this century and now 17 years in, the transformation of the former Georgia-Pacific West brownfield to a revitalized waterfront has cost the port authority tens of millions of dollars. The redevelopment effort has stalled numerous times. No delay has been more prolonged than the four years that has passed since the master development agreement for the Waterfront District was approved in 2013 and a master developer—Harcourt Developments from Dublin, Ireland—was selected in the following year.
Where commissioners and candidates disagree is on causes for the delays, and solutions.
“There seems to be a misconception in Whatcom County that the port is holding this project up,” Commissioner Bobby Briscoe complained at a meeting of the commissioners last week. “I have been questioned and chastised that we are not doing our job here, and we’re not moving that GP project along as fast as possible.
“I would publicly ask the people of Whatcom County that if they have a problem with how fast the GP project is going to please call up the City of Bellingham mayor’s office and tell them to get off the pot. It’s time to move this project along. If I was the developer, I would be upset that we’re not going along faster than we are.
“Put the pressure where it needs to be,” Briscoe advised.
The commissioner’s statement came as a surprise to the City of Bellingham.
City Council has not been asked to take any action since the original master development plan and its general timetables were approved by them in 2013, nor have they been asked to make any amendments or adjustments to what’s known as the Waterfront District Sub-Area Plan. According to agreements, major changes to that sub-area plan require a public review and process by the city and the port authority.
That can take time, but they first have to be submitted. They have not been submitted.
This week, City Council approved a contract to construct a road next to the Granary building that would serve as gateway into the waterfront redevelopment. The city announced the timetable last May. Road construction is projected to begin next month. But the Granary, originally projected for completion in 2016, remains unfinished—a planned addition to the back portion of the building has not even begun.
In October of last year, Harcourt presented a revised vision plan for the central waterfront. The submitted vision plan affirmed parks along Whatcom Waterway and connection to the downtown at Granary, Laurel, Bay, and Commercial streets. The vision plan also included a generous serpentine park through the center of the site with potential connection to city park development south of the former GP mill site.
The primary differences in the proposed revision were the streets aligned with the current grid plan in downtown, and the replacement of a Commercial Green Park with the serpentine park. These changes require amendments to the sub-area plan and associated agreements, but they have not yet been formally submitted by Harcourt.
“These are not major modifications,” Commissioner Michael McAuley noted at the commission’s meeting last week.
“We generally agree with the direction,” Tara Sundin, the city’s Community and Economic Development manager, agreed in a report to City Council in June of 2016, although the fine, precise details of road and parks placement would need to be worked out by planners. Sundin stressed that any amendments require approval of both port and city following required public process.
No proposed amendments were received by April 2017. If submitted by the close of this year, the earliest City Council could be expected to take action on the proposals would be in April 2018 as part of their legislative schedule.
The Irish developer has announced they’ll return to Bellingham later this month to meet with port and city planners and take another run at their vision plan—perhaps in time for Council action in 2018.
“Harcourt can proceed with developing projects that are consistent with the adopted Waterfront District Sub-Area Plan,” Sundin noted. “Harcourt’s primary focus is redeveloping the Granary building.”
Last October, Harcourt also proposed taking on an additional immediate project, renovation of the former Board Mill building at the GP site for adapted reuse of a hotel and convention center. Port Commissioners Briscoe and McAuley voted to deny Harcourt that project because the Irish developer had not made sufficient progress in meeting the timetable of Granary completion and other construction commitments in the initial 10.8-acre development parcel.
Under the terms of the master development agreement, Harcourt would complete two major building projects on Bellingham’s central waterfront no later than the end of 2021. Harcourt would adaptively reuse the Granary Building by 2019, and complete construction of a second building with a minimum of 40,000 square feet of mixed-use space by 2021. The company would not be seriously in default of its agreements until 2034.
“I think the deliverable dates for completion of projects were overly generous” to the developer, McAuley commented after the meeting. “We can see that with the Granary building.
“The port says, ‘We don’t want to push too hard on deadlines because we know there are complicated things that need to happen, so we’re going to push this date out into the future,’” he said. “Well, we know that people are going to wait to the last minute to do things because that is the nature of human nature. So we have a building like the Granary, which is ready to be leased for tenant improvements, and they can’t even access the building because the road is incomplete. When things like that happen, things are going to slow down even further,” McAuley said.
“In October of last year, Harcourt announced they wanted to pursue a hotel and conference center, and my two colleagues on the commission said, ‘no,’” Commissioner Dan Robbins commented. “I think they wanted to tell Harcourt that they were running the show; Harcourt isn’t.
“They still haven’t voted for it,” he said. “To me, that really slowed Harcourt down. That made Harcourt say, ‘OK, guys, we’re here to play, we’re here to make it go. We know what our plan was for Building Two and Building Three, but we want to go to Building Four because we think it will bring the whole project together quicker.’
“And I agree with that.
“If I was Harcourt, I would wonder if these folks really want us here.”
Ken Bell, a businessman who specializes in recycling and waste management and cleanup operations, agrees with Robbins that Harcourt needs to be given more run room to execute their vision for the central waterfront. Bell is seeking to replace McAuley, who is retiring from the commission at the end of this year.
“The current port commission is too cautious, they listen to too many outside entities,” Bell said. “Everybody is afraid to move and at some point you’ve got to pull the trigger.
“The Granary building was the first project, we had to keep that building alive as the first priority. Everything revolved around getting that Granary building first,” Bell said. “Part of the agreement is that building would be open by this past summer. But the city doesn’t get the roads through. So they can’t open this summer. So now they’re slow-tracking what they agreed to do until they can get the roads through.
“Then they come back and say, we’ve got a hotel and conference center that they put in—which is a $40 million financing package they’re willing to put on the table—and the port says no.
Michael Shepard, an instructor who teaches Environmental Studies and Cultural Sustainability at Western Washington University, seeks Robbins’ position on the commission this November. Shepard believes the remoteness of the master developer, their lack of connection to the community, may be a weakness.
“We have a proposal that was agreed to a year ago, and that is reflected in the sub-area plan,” Shepard explained, “but we appear to have deviated from that agreement, or rather we have not finalized that agreement. No longer do we see the port and the city and Harcourt all on the same page. That’s led to a bit of a standstill. We don’t have clear marching orders for where we are going next.
“We are hoping this Irish developer is going to fulfill all of our original interests, but it is a little challenging to know if that is going to happen,” he said.
“I believe the Irish developer has been achieving progress slower than I’d like, and I think there are some red flags about them not having a substantial local presence—an office in Bellingham, or a real estate division, or a local contact,” Shepard said. “It’s proven to be challenging for local businesses who are interested, for example, in setting up shop in the Granary building.
“We have a good plan, and the best possible resolution is that Harcourt fulfills the plan that the port and the city agreed to. If we have to look for a new developer, that’s going to mire things down. If we have to develop a new sub-area plan it is going to stretch this out again,” he said. “I want to ensure that we as a commission uphold that plan.”
Shepard speculated about the need for an oversight project manager to assist collaboration.
Barry Wenger believes the public ultimately fulfills that role. Wenger, an environmental planner and water-quality engineer recently retired from the state Dept. of Ecology, is challenging Bell for McAuley’s open seat on the commission. The delays, Wenger asserts, may be a symptom of having the wrong people in positions to enact the plan.
“The reason you do planning,” Wenger said, “is because the plan outlives the planners that were there that day. It creates a consistency over time that can direct you so we don’t keep changing our minds as a community and wasting a lot of time.
“The port and the city have the potential to work really well together,” Wenger said. “The complication is the master developer—and to me, that is like the tail wagging the dog. The master developer shouldn’t have that kind of control to reject a development plan that has gone through an extensive public process and review.
“They’ve been given a pretty loose rein, without a lot of detailed objectives or timetables to complete them; very little repercussions if they don’t produce,” he said. “If you’ve got a third player that is not making things happen, then you might want to bring back the A Team to get the project back on track. And that is going to be unfortunate, because that is going to take extra time.
“But: You only get one chance at doing this right,” Wenger said. “This is forever. if it takes five years to get it back on the right page, get it done right, it is going to be worth it for the next hundred years. It is the taxpayers’ money, ultimately; it’s their money.
“This is an asset for the entire community,” Wenger said. “We’ve got one earth, and we’ve got one chance to get this right.”
Complete interviews with the candidates will be posted online Thurs., Oct. 12.
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